Community Colleges We Need

With interest rates on some student loans set to double, millions of students and families across the nation may be forced to re-consider whether it is worth taking on even more debt to finance a college education. While the data are clear -- it is much better to have a college degree than not -- it is also true that not all valuable degrees need to put families into serious debt. Many community colleges today prove that value can be had at a reasonable price.

Our nation's 1,200 community colleges educate 13 million students -- including the majority of college freshmen and sophomores. These schools are growing much faster than the four-year college sector. They also serve as a central point of access for the rapidly growing populations of minority students. And according to a recent study by Sallie Mae, two-year colleges are becoming an increasingly popular choice for upper middle-class students too.

We serve together as co-chairs of the biennial Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, which reveals what a great bargain community colleges can be for students and our country. The Aspen Prize process involves an in-depth investigation of the outcomes, contexts, and practices of the nation's community colleges. After two years of awarding the Aspen Prize, we have learned of innovative approaches that colleges are taking to increase academic rigor, measure and improve students' learning, support low-income and minority students, build partnerships with K-12 schools and four-year institutions and create strong ties with local industries that rely on well-prepared community college graduates.

For example, Santa Barbara City College, one of the 2013 Aspen Prize co-winners , does not see its mission as simply granting associate's degrees. Professors there push students, many of whom are minorities and might otherwise face low expectations, to aspire to a bachelor's degree.

They teach their classes to the standards of California's four-year state universities, explicitly aligning curricula and extensive support services for students to succeed at institutions like nearby UC Santa Barbara. With success! The college has increased the share of full-time students who transfer to four-year schools to 57 percent -- an exceptionally high rate.

At Walla Walla Community College, the other 2013 Aspen Prize co-winner, college leaders continually revamp programs so that students' education meet the demands of jobs available in the region's economy. And when the region struggles and there aren't enough jobs, college leaders help to create them. In the last decade they founded a winemaking program, which helped jumpstart the local tourist economy. The college has become a national leader in programs ranging from wind energy to nursing to tractor maintenance. As a result, new graduates from Walla Walla earn wages that average 80 percent higher than those of other new hires in the region.

In the end, all of this smart and hard work translates into students at Walla Walla and Santa Barbara receiving great value at an affordable price - ranging roughly from $1,400 to $4,000 per year for tuition. For families facing the prospect of doubling interest rates, those prices are pretty appealing.

But price is only part of what matters to students and families. While community colleges have received well deserved praise for providing broad access at an affordable price, institutions themselves achieve widely variable outcomes. If more community colleges are to meet their potential, they need to not only be affordable, but emulate those things that exceptional colleges do to ensure that students complete the credentials required to find good jobs with good wages.

Most of the practices and policies at these highly successful community colleges cost relatively little money. In fact, the Aspen finalist colleges have made great progress even as states have cut funding for higher education. This is an encouraging finding, because it suggests that many of our colleges nationwide can also achieve these successes without waiting for a rebound in state spending that may never come.

We have witnessed and believe in the potential of America's community colleges to deliver on the dreams that the millions of students will bring with them to campus this fall. But as we face rising college costs, there is more to be done to make sure that their investments pay off in the classroom and in the labor market.